By Robert A. Vella
I hear it everyday. People all over the world are expressing shock and disbelief over the rise of dangerous political extremism, especially the far-right variety, in the U.S., across Europe, and now even in Brazil. That so many people still don’t understand, or simply cannot accept, the fundamental reasons why this is happening may be the biggest problem of all – for this collective ignorance and denial provides the social cover necessary for extremist movements to flourish.
If you’re looking for overly-simplistic answers (e.g. good versus evil) which can conform to your particular worldview, then you’ll be disappointed with this post. If you are committed to the cold, hard truth, then this post provides some resources and perspectives which might be helpful. Although I’ve been discussing the issue of rising political populism and extremism on this blog for several years, I’ll try to keep my personal opinions to a minimum and let other more qualified individuals, or their works, speak for themselves.
One of the misconceptions many people have is the assumption that we humans are generally rational beings. Therefore, destructive and/or hostile acts committed by others must be attributed to malice aforethought. Another misconception is the assumption that society is merely the sum of, and a reflection of, its generally rational population. However, irrationality is not just an aberration. It is not only common, it is also part of who we are as human beings. Furthermore, the dynamics of society are far more complex than simply the sum of its constituent human parts. Sociologists know this, and that’s why an entire field of study has been devoted to the subject. The term psychosocial defines the effect of social environment on the mental and physical health of people.
One such sociologist was Erich Fromm (1900-1980) who analyzed the social breakdown in Interbellum Germany which gave rise to Nazism. In his illuminating 1941 book Escape from Freedom, Fromm addresses the irrational anxieties present in human nature, the basic fear of freedom and democracy, and how these manifest in a primal desire for authoritarian social order. Conversely, democratic freedom is strictly an intellectual appeal which proves to be quite fragile in the face of social grievance and hardship be it real or imagined.
Here’s a concise review of the book by Holt McDougal:
If humanity cannot live with the dangers and responsibilities inherent in freedom, it will probably turn to authoritarianism. This is the central idea of Escape from Freedom, a landmark work by one of the most distinguished thinkers of our time, and a book that is as timely now as when first published in 1941. Few books have thrown such light upon the forces that shape modern society or penetrated so deeply into the causes of authoritarian systems. If the rise of democracy set some people free, at the same time it gave birth to a society in which the individual feels alienated and dehumanized. Using the insights of psychoanalysis as probing agents, Fromm’s work analyzes the illness of contemporary civilization as witnessed by its willingness to submit to totalitarian rule.
See: Mechanisms of Escape from Freedom – These are passages from Chapter V of Fear from Freedom. Fromm explores and presents the psychological and social mechanisms that lead an individual to be afraid of freedom and to prefer to give it up. They appear as the tendency to be led by a “superior” power and/or to behave like a social automaton conforming to a role assigned to him by others or by circumstances. And there is also the drive to destructiveness (towards others or towards himself) when the feeling of powerlessness is overwhelming. In all those cases freedom to conduct his/her own personal and social life is nowhere to be seen.
It is this premise, so astutely conveyed by Fromm, which I’ve repeatedly asserted as having been ignored by the world’s post-WWII centrist establishment. Democracy and freedom are innately fragile constructs which must be constantly reinforced in the culture. That they were taken for granted so arrogantly is the main reason why they’re failing today.
Now, let’s move onto the current fallout from this terrible failure as it relates to America – that is, the exploitation of latent xenophobia, bigotry, and racism by President Donald Trump.
For a long time in modern American history, it was unacceptable for the news media to portray politicians as either racist or as serving racist interests (a notable exception was George Wallace who openly admitted it). If politicians adamantly denied such portrayals, journalists who “went there” – no matter how accurately they did so – risked jeopardizing their professional careers. Today, however, that is no longer the case. President Trump is so blatant in his support for white nationalism (i.e. white supremacy), and so blatant in his condemnation of the targets of white nationalism (i.e. immigrants, refugees, ethnic and religious minorities), that journalists and commentators are “going there” with increasing frequency.
I urge you to watch these two video segments featuring former Republican strategist Steve Schmidt and former Republican congressman Joe Scarborough who both came down on Trump harder than I’ve ever seen so far. Their reactions came in response to Trump’s rhetoric following the recent arrests of the mail bomb suspect in Florida (Cesar Sayoc, domestic terrorism) and the mass shooting suspect at a Jewish synagogue in Pittsburgh (Robert Bowers, hate crimes).